US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Is Egypt Heading Off the Rails?

in Program

By Mona Yacoubian – Egypt’s revolution is clearly at
a turning point, and the next four months could be its most critical period.
The tanking economy, the deepening crisis with the United States, and the
ruling generals’ pitiful management of the country threaten to send Egypt off
the rails. Presidential elections now slated for late May should mark an
important milestone in the military’s transition out of power. Yet, as the deadline
approaches the generals appear to be employing tactics to foment
instability.  Domestically, with the
recent Port Said soccer riots, and internationally, with the American NGO
crisis, they seem to be lashing out in a last ditch effort to either retain
power or make Egypt nearly impossible to govern for whomever might follow.

With Egypt’s foreign reserves
dwindling, time is running out for the country to stabilize. An agreement with
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be a critical step toward
stabilization, anchoring an economy that currently seems to be in a free
fall.  Ideally, an IMF deal will attract
much-needed aid from the Gulf and serve as an incentive for the return of
foreign investment. 

I lived in Cairo as a student in
the 1980s, and returned to Egypt last week – eight years after my last visit.  The ominous signs I witnessed suggest that
Egypt’s revolution, which is far from complete, faces its greatest challenges
to date.

Upon arrival, I was immediately
struck by a palpable sense of anger and despair in the streets.  Those familiar with Cairo are well-acquainted
with the city’s noisy chaos and disarray, as well as its crushing poverty.  But the mood this visit seemed intensely
desperate.

When I visited Tahrir Square I
expected to see tents and anti-regime graffiti. 
I was astounded by the extent that Tahrir and its environs have deteriorated.  The mood there was not joyful or
promising.  Rather, it felt almost menacing.
 When I asked an Egyptian activist about
this later, he explained that the composition of those demonstrating in Tahrir
has changed.  “Those with jobs have gone
back to work,” he said.  “Now, it’s the
poor and unemployed.”

My appointment with an Egyptian
NGO was on Sharia’ Muhammad Mahmoud, a street just off Tahrir where I lived as
a student.  The area was unrecognizable
from my trip eight years ago. Makeshift concrete barriers bisected the street, a
reminder of the recent protests against the Interior Ministry that occurred just
a couple blocks away. The American University in Cairo was shuttered. Its dorms
and surrounding buildings were in total disrepair, pocked by broken windows and
crumbling bricks. The deteriorating campus of the university, once a symbol of
America’s engagement with Egypt, is perhaps a fitting metaphor for the current
crisis in US-Egyptian relations.

As I walked the several blocks, I
felt a growing sense of disquiet. The Mubarak regime’s legendary corruption is
well-known, but the shameful state of disrepair that they left behind often
goes unremarked.  The neighborhood’s decrepit
state served as a vivid indictment of the government’s decades of neglect. The
entire place was in shambles. Later, when I remarked on this to an Egyptian
colleague, she noted, “It didn’t happen overnight. Over thirty years, they [the
Mubarak regime] let Egypt go to the dogs, with the U.S. and others complicit in
the act.” 

Egypt’s growing impoverished
class is yet another indicator of its deterioration. The estimated percentage
of Egyptians living below the poverty line has ballooned from 15 percent in the
1980s to more than 40 percent today.  The
number of working children is officially estimated by the government at 2.8
million, but the actual number is likely much higher.  Cairo’s street kids were another sad reminder
of the generations-long challenge that Egypt faces.

On this trip, the warmth and
humor that is typical of Egyptians was muted, replaced by a dismal gloom as
many wondered where the revolution is headed. 
 Every cab driver I met complained
bitterly about the economy and the ability to make ends meet. Their deep sense
of concern left little doubt that Egypt’s deteriorating economy is clearly
exacting a toll. 

More worrisome were reports of
rising crime.  One of my contacts noted,
“We are witnessing things that are completely new to Egypt: children are being
kidnapped for ransom, the roads are not safe after dark, armed robberies occur
with frequency.”  As if to underscore the
sense of danger, one cab driver told me he refuses to drive after dark.  When I asked why, he said, “Because I’m
worried thieves will slit my throat and steal my cab.”

The United States also has
significant leadership role to play at this critical stage in Egypt’s
revolution.  Nearly everyone I spoke with
during my visit, from youth activists to establishment figures, had the same
message: the United States must not overreact to the generals’
provocations.  Egypt’s destiny hangs in
the balance.  The generals’ incendiary
strategy of whipping up nationalist sentiment and stirring unrest risks
unleashing forces that they cannot control. 
Many fear that Egypt’s next phase-a “hunger revolution”-could be far
more violent and unpredictable, hurtling the country into the unknown.

The Obama
administration has wisely worked to cool tensions, recently sending the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S.
Army General Martin Dempsey to Cairo to address rising tensions directly with
the Egyptian military leadership.  The administration’s decision
to maintain Egypt’s current aid level for the 2013 budget further signals its
commitment to help Egypt through its deepening crisis. Indeed, the U.S.
government should do whatever it can to ensure the success of Egypt’s
revolution-among the most significant of the Arab uprisings-as the fate of the
Arab Spring hangs in the balance.

 


Photo Credit: Voice of America, via Flickr, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:VOA_Weeks_-_Cairo_protests,_November_20,_2011_-_03.jpg

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